Turning Risk Into Resilience

The United States is already feeling the impacts of climate change, and colleges and universities — and the communities in which they are located — are not prepared.

The fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA), released in draft form in early 2013, finds that U.S. average temperatures will increase between 2°F and 4°F; sea level will rise from one to four feet; and heavy precipitation will consistently exceed stormwater capacity, increase flooding, and worsen existing erosion issues (NCA Draft, 2013, Executive Summary). The findings make clear that we must prepare to live and do business in new ways, becoming more resilient to extreme weather events and better equipped to adapt to a changing climate.

Higher education has already taken a leadership role in climate mitigation — that is, preventing climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions — as displayed by the 660 signatory campuses of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) who have collectively reduced net carbon emissions by 25 percent in just five years. 

Now, higher education must take the lead in climate adaptation — preparing for and responding to the impacts of climate change.

Addressing Risk and Responsibility

Colleges and universities face clear and growing risks from climate disruption, and it is critical that presidents and those with fiduciary responsibility for these institutions be aware of and act to minimize risks for both campus and surrounding community.

College presidents are already reporting damage associated with a changing climate in recent years, with flooding in upstate New York and Vermont, roof collapses from record-breaking snow in Washington, DC, droughts in Atlanta, and erosion and sea level rise in California. And from Maryland to Massachusetts, some 1,200,000 college students were disrupted as a result of Hurricane Sandy. Only campuses like New York University and Princeton University, which have implemented on-site cogeneration plants with the ability to generate electricity on-site without grid-support, were able to keep lights and heat on during the storm even when surrounding municipalities were without power.

The future of higher education institutions is inextricably linked with the future of the communities that surround them. Food systems, water, power, transportation — the elements on which a college depends all come from or transit the community nest for each institution.


Colleges and universities are sources of expertise with significant resource-convening ability and diverse connections within their local communities. As such, they can serve as “hubs” in their communities on adaptation issues and help their regions prepare for the impacts brought on by climate disruption, providing vision and coordination. 

The Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI), a partnership between ACUPCC Signatory University of Wisconsin and other state agencies to assess and anticipate climate change impacts on specific Wisconsin natural resources, is evaluating the potential effects on industry, agriculture, tourism, and recommending adaptation strategies.

Second Nature is convening resources and support for higher education to lead on climate preparedness efforts. The Higher Education Climate Adaptation Committee’s 2011 white paper, “Higher Education’s Role in Adapting to a Changing Climate," evaluates how colleges and universities can prepare society through their education, research, operations, and community engagement activities. A webinar series on the key findings and implications of the NCA, with participation from lead authors, is underway during 2013, with several recordings available and more events planned through the summer and fall. 

Call to Action

While the development and implementation of climate mitigation strategies remains vital, many serious impacts of climate change are now unavoidable. Addressing the risks from climate change can provide the opportunity to change institutional behavior, preparing them to be safe and secure in the face of change, even more actively engaged in solving real-world problems, and reorganized to better provide the education and research necessary in a changing climate. 

Second Nature is encouraging the creation of a national community of climate preparedness, grounded firmly in higher education’s recognition of the reality of climate change, and our commitment to lead the way to resilient and sustainable societies. Given insufficient support from the federal government in this regard, colleges and universities need to be centers of leadership on adaptation, not only in terms of conducting research but also in explaining its significance and identifying the steps necessary to deal with it effectively.  

David Hales is the president of Second Nature (www.secondnature.org), a nonprofit working to create a healthy, just, and sustainable society by transforming higher education, and a member of the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee. Sarah Brylinsky is the director of Climate Resilience & Educational Programs at Second Nature. David and Sarah can be reached at 617/722-0036 or [email protected].